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'Temporary' fix for 'permanent problem'

Commissioners propose shifting expenses to keep highway department in black

August 26, 2009
Instructed by the county council to come up with a plan to deal with a major shortfall within the county highway department budget, the three members of the Crawford County Board of Commissioners, who met in a special session Thursday evening, believe they have come up with a way to keep the department funded for the rest of the year.

The commissioners agreed to ask the council, which met yesterday morning (the meeting was after press time), to pay the salaries and benefits of seven operators, as well as the health insurance premiums of all highway department employees, with Rainy Day Fund monies.

If that isn't permissible by the state, or if the council is unfavorable, the commissioners agreed to then ask that Economic Development Income Tax dollars be used instead.

Moving those financial obligations out of the highway department budget would leave about $110,000 for rock and other supplies. That likely would not be enough for the rest of 2009, the commissioners said, and they would have to ask the council to allow them to use a portion of the county's riverboat gaming revenue.

The county learned of the shortfall two weeks ago when the state sent an e-mail to the auditor saying the county's 2009 budget had been unofficially approved, but that a decrease in fuel tax revenue — local property taxes do not fund the highway department — would result in the department receiving about $165,000 less than expected.

The Auditor's Office has since discovered about $80,000 in storm reimbursement monies from the state that the county hasn't collected, but even with those funds, the highway department remains underfunded.

Larry Bye, president of the board, told the other two commissioners and three council members in the audience — Jerry Brewer, Jim Taylor and Sharon Wilson — that any plan for this year's budget crunch only will be a "temporary solution to a permanent problem," as the state has indicated the 2010 highway department budget must be cut even more, likely down to $900,000, which is less than personnel obligations alone.

"So, before you start out in 2010, your anticipated revenue is less than salaries?" Brewer asked.

"Yes," Bye answered.

"That's tough," Brewer re-sponded.

The highway department has 23 employees, which is about five less than just a few years ago and two fewer than at the beginning of this year. Bye said charges by some council members at their Aug. 11 meeting that Bye attended after learning earlier in the day about the reduction in state revenue that spending is out of control at the highway department were unfair.

"I don't mind telling you I took a little bit of offense at that," he said.

Randy Gilmore, District 2 commissioner since 2001, said the highway department has been short on funding each of his nine years and the $165,000 cut from the state just made it worse.

"There's not wasteful spending that I know of," he said.

For comparison, Bye said Perry County, which maintains just 10 more miles than Crawford County, has one more employee and an MVH (Motor Vehicle Highway) budget of $1.9 million, compared to Crawford County's $1.1 million.

"So, they're looking at $900,000 extra in their budget for 10 extra miles," he said.

The state formula for revenue distribution isn't based just on the number of miles a county maintains, but also its population and number of cars, harming county's with small populations and a high number of pickup trucks, Bye said.

In addition to the main budget, county highway departments have a Cumulative Bridge Fund and a Local Road and Street Fund. Again, despite maintaining approximately the same number of miles as Perry County, Crawford County receives less money, Bye said. In the larger of those two funds, cumulative bridge, Perry County has $536,000, compared to $188,000 for Crawford County, he said.

"I don't see what kind of cuts we can make," Bye said, later adding that lay-offs would make it more difficult to repair roads after floods and snows.

"Either we have to find other revenue sources or we have to cut services," he said.

Brewer, who suggested the Rainy Day Fund monies as a possibility, said the highway department has done a good job and he doesn't want to see any lay-offs.

"When they (the state) cut you $165,000, that's difficult," he said. "That's going in the wrong direction."

Brewer said he can't speak for the other council members but said he would try to persuade them to provide the funding.

"I am going to urge we try to get you through to the end of the year," he said, adding the county has an obligation to residents to take care of the roads and he wouldn't vote for lay-offs.

Taylor, who wasn't among the group of council members to question the highway department's spending at the council's meeting on Aug. 11, also said he would favor shifting personnel and health insurance expenses around to keep the department funded.

In addition, per state instruction, the commissioners also had to cut $26,381 from the Cumulative Bridge Fund and $9,372 from the Local Road and Street Fund, as the revenues funding them also are down. To do so, the commissioners cut from the bridge repairs and bituminous line items, respectively.

Turning their attention to 2010, the commissioners agreed to request the council fund the salaries and benefits of the highway department's seven operators and three foremen and all of its health insurance costs with EDIT monies, as well as pay the clerk's salary and benefits out of the General Fund.

Doing so will get the highway department within the amount the state has indicated it must be but leaves no money for supplies and equipment, leaving the commissioners hopeful the council will be agreeable to finding other funding sources.

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